(12.30 p.m. BST) -- We first experienced MSC Cruises' latest ship, MSC Bellissima, in a glittering naming ceremony in a windy Southampton back in March 2019.
The ship looked and felt familiar -- after all, it's a sister to the first-in-class MSC Meraviglia, which launched in May 2017.
However, a naming ceremony (complete with Holly Willoughby and Sophia Loren) is not the best place to get a real feel for the ship, so we got back onboard to find out whether MSC Bellissima really is "the most beautiful".
Here are our impressions.
1. The Ship is Huge – And it Works
This is a giant ship, but even on a sea day it works. The 25-metre main pool and the large sunbathing area, the aft pool and sunbathing areas, the Deck 19 kids splash area and the solarium, plus multiple whirlpools means you are never fighting for space.
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It's the same story for the main buffet, the Marketplace -- the sheer volume of it, plus the layout (which stretches all the way to the back with multiple serving stations), means this area never seems to get jammed up -- even at peak times, a rarity at sea.
And finally, the fact that there are multiple dining rooms, multiple dining times and shows are on three times a night, also avoids jams.
2. Cirque du Soleil at Sea is Bonkers but Brilliant
Who cares about plot, really? When you have rope-skippers, pole-throwers, foot- jugglers, acrobats, tightrope-artists and performers who walk upside down on their hands and others dressed up as Donnie Darko-esque bunnies and jellyfish? No one does, when the performances are this jaw-droppingly good.
We long gave up trying to work out what on earth is going on in Cirque shows, and our advice is just sit back and marvel at the stunts and smile at the humour.
(Top tip: Try and snag a seat either at the front or the aisles if you want to be part of the action!)
3. Food Has Gone Up Another Notch...
MSC Cruises has steadily been building on the standards it set on Meraviglia -- with the introduction of some truly excellent speciality restaurants -- which it consolidated on MSC Seaside and MSC Seaview.
Kaito Teppanyaki is a traditional Hibachi, which means there's a lot of knife-throwing and egg catching, but not at the expense of the food quality -- the wagyu beef was to die for. Kaito Sushi is presided over by a Japanese sushi master, Chef Saimiya, who explained in detail to us how he only sources the very freshest fish for his sublime creations. And they are also reasonably priced (see 7, below).
However, the significant take away we got was that these standards are not confined to the specialty restaurants. On one of the two Gala Nights, we had one of the best, if not the best, beef tenderloin we have ever tasted -- on sea or on land. Tender, perfectly cooked, slightly pink in the middle and a slight crunch on the outside, it was melt-in-your-mouth good.
It also helps that all bread, breadsticks, pasta, pastries, mozzarella and even ice-cream cones, are made fresh daily.
4. …As Has Service
Back in the day, service was not necessarily a strong point for the line, however, just like food, it has tackled this head-on and this cruise was the first one on which we observed a real sea-change in terms of service levels.
It could just be a feeling, but the crew is happy and it shows. It also helps that the line has its best people onboard (certainly at a senior level – many we met on Meravliglia) as it’s the inaugural season, and it seems to be working.
5. We Forgot How Good the Yacht Club Is
Speaking of service. We were not staying here, but we had daily access, which meant we could enjoy the facilities, the food and the service. To be honest, it would have been easy to stay in here all day (and many passengers do) -- private pool, private restaurant, private buffet, private lounge, and private sunbathing area makes it hard to leave.
But forget all that for a moment, and the thing that really stood out for us was the quite phenomenal service standards. Presided over by the wonderful Rosalia Scaldaferri and head butler Danny, you are greeted by name the moment you enter, every whim and request is either catered for immediately or before you even knew you wanted it, and you are made to feel welcome at all times.
We liken these service standards to the intuitive service of the ultra-luxury lines, and look forward to experiencing MSC's new all-luxury ships.
6. Private vs. Public
However -- and we feel passionate about this -- these for-fee areas do not come at the expense of the public areas, unlike on certain recently refurbished ships from other lines, where more and more existing real estate is carved out of pre-existing public areas and closed off to non-suite passengers.
The private areas on MSC Bellissima have been designed into the ship, rather than an add on. The Yacht Club area is huge and takes up the whole of the front of the ship, but it doesn’t take away public real estate from the ship.
So for example you have an expansive kids' club on Deck 18 (see 8, below), with an Aquapark directly above, complete with a ropes course, three waterslides and a kids' splash area with spray guns, dunk buckets and a splash pool.
7. Fee vs. Free Dining
There are some new-build ships where the prices of specialty dining have become so expensive that it's hard to justify venturing out of the main dining rooms. Not so on Bellissima, where you can enjoy a decent tapas selection in Ramon Freixa's HOLA! Tapas for 24 euros per person (or go a la carte for tapas starting at just three euros); or a bowl of delicious Japanese broth for just five euros from Kaito Sushi. Similarly, wines don't break the bank with glasses starting at six euros.
8. MSC Celebrates Kids
What has saddened us about the new-builds from Norwegian Cruise Line and Celebrity Cruises is the removal of the kids' clubs from the top of the ship, right to the bottom, pretty well out of sight and with no natural light.
On Bellissima, the kids club, and all the surrounding kids-focused facilities, take up a huge chunk of space across Decks 18 & 19, with dedicated rooms for five different age groups, starting from babies. And the programming onboard is second to none.
Not only that, there are family time discos, family-friendly accommodation and kids parades in the main promenade almost every night.
A few final thoughts
The only criticism/observation we would make is that this is a big, noisy bustling ship, and you're hard-pressed to find a quiet space (unless you are a Yacht Club passenger), so may not suit cruisers looking for some quiet time.
But if you are prepared to embrace the parades, the pool parties, the wild shows, the promenade discos and everything else going on this ship, you are going to love MSC Bellissima.